The value of models in history

Total War Screen Grab. (cc) Miyaoka Hitchcock.

Play the Past, a group blog about the use of video games in his­tory teach­ing is pro­du­cing some excel­lent posts. It’s par­tic­u­larly use­ful to me given my atti­tude to teach­ing with video games. It’d be nice to say I’m scep­tical, but that implies I’ve had a crit­ical look at the evid­ence and come to a reasoned con­clu­sion. It’d be fairer to say I’m unreas­on­ably hos­tile and there’s been a couple of good posts that show that.

Practical Necromancy for Beginners by Shawn Graham would have been a big help to me if it had been my intro­duc­tion to mod­el­ling soci­et­ies. I didn’t like mod­els for his­tory when I was intro­duced to them. What I saw was a big soci­etal model with no real jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the arbit­rary pro­cesses that made up the model and then a detailed dis­cus­sion of one of the sub-processes without much ref­er­ence to the rest of the model, all presen­ted as “this is how soci­et­ies are”. Shawn Graham could have made a massive change to my first reac­tion thanks to one simple sen­tence:

Ah. So you’re not sim­u­lat­ing the past, but rather how you think x worked in the past.”

It’s small dif­fer­ence but it’s a subtle dif­fer­ence. He goes on to explain how you don’t have to accept any model he puts for­ward, you can change it. Again this adds sup­port for accept­ing or reject­ing a model. It also helps his mod­els have con­sequences if you change the inputs and are not purely about dynamic thrust­ing arrows in excit­ing shapes and intersections.

There are places I could grumble. One of the bene­fits of com­puter mod­els is that read­ing code requires close-reading which is a use­ful his­tor­ical skill. Yes it is, but my gut reac­tion is why learn close-reading for his­tory by examin­ing code, when you could close-reading for his­tory by examin­ing his­tor­ical texts? The gut is not noted for its large num­ber of brain cells, and this example demon­strates why mine is no genius. Close-reading for code should be sim­pler. It should be unam­bigu­ous and lack­ing the com­plex­it­ies of mean­ing that words in his­tor­ical text have. It’s an easier way of learn­ing the skill that you can then take into more com­plex situ­ations effect­ively mak­ing a shal­lower learn­ing curve.

The only thing I could ser­i­ously say is miss­ing is that mod­els can also be help­ful when they break down — if it’s a good model. If you have some­thing is that work­ing very well in most situ­ations, but breaks down at a spe­cific time or place, that’s a big clue that some­thing really inter­est­ing is hap­pen­ing at that time or place. History is com­plex, so it’s cer­tain that any model will break down sooner or later, but maybe a recog­ni­tion that a model that breaks isn’t the same as a failed model would be helpful.

The other entry is older, but again shows me that I’m miss­ing some­thing, Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is it offens­ive enough? by Trevor Owens. I saw a brief flurry of tweets and I wasn’t inter­ested. I’ve played Colonization, it’s a very basic game with not much adher­ence to the his­tory of the times. My feel­ing was you could spin up some­thing about his­tor­ical rel­ev­ance, but the lim­it­a­tions of tech­no­logy would mean that it would have to be lim­ited by design. If you actu­ally read the post, you’ll see Trevor Owens goes way bey­ond that.

He points out that a game based in that period is by neces­sity going to have racist over­tones, because the beliefs of the times and the col­on­isa­tion pro­cesses were racist. Yet he makes a very sens­ible point that the Triangular Trade makes no appear­ance in Colonization. You see North America. You deal with Europe at a dis­tance, but there is no Africa. I can see why the design­ers balked at mak­ing own­ing negro slave a fun activ­ity. At the same time it does no favours to the African-American exper­i­ence to com­pletely ignore that the slavery exis­ted. It’s not simply the lim­it­a­tions of PCs at the time that meant slavery was omit­ted. It was a choice. That blind­ness can be seen in other ways that we use or remem­ber the past. It’s another good post.

I dare say there are shal­low and vapid obser­va­tions on the use of games in teach­ing. You can find shal­low opin­ions in all fields, so it would be weird if teach­ing through gam­ing was exempt. What the Play the Past is show­ing is that it’s not inher­ently the case that teach­ing with com­puter games has to be shal­low. So I’ve tried to work out why I have an imme­di­ate pre­ju­dice against teach­ing through gaming.

One reason might be pur­it­an­ical. If it’s fun it’s not work. Games are sup­posed to be fun, ergo they can’t be work. It might be silly, but pre­ju­dices don’t have to be rational. Oddly another reason might be dia­met­ric­ally opposed to this. I’m not a huge fan of com­puter games. I’ve been temp­ted by Rome: Total War, that I’ve seen has hit the Mac App Store. That’s partly due to see­ing it used in the semi-documentary Time Commanders which I liked. Prejudices don’t have to be con­sist­ent either.

I think another reason is that I haven’t grasped what games mean in the mod­ern media land­scape. I can see why someone would ana­lyse the use of the past in films or books. Why not games? I don’t play many games, but it ignores the fact that many people do. It’s a massive industry that is rivalling the film industry in reach into house­holds. People like me will dis­ap­pear through nat­ural wastage in time, but I won­der if people pro­du­cing really clever and pion­eer­ing research and teach­ing tools are going to find a frus­trat­ing bar­rier of ignor­ance for the next few years.

For sens­ible com­ment­ary on games and mod­els, see also the post that Shawn Graham linked to from his post, Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations.

How to navigate a Viking longboat with a king, some bees and a DC-8

Viking Ship. Photo (cc) Simon Bishop.

Jo Marchant has repor­ted on a new paper, On the trail of Vikings with polar­ized sky­light: exper­i­mental study of the atmo­spheric optical pre­requis­ites allow­ing polar­i­met­ric nav­ig­a­tion by Viking sea­farers, for Nature news. She also adds more on her own blog includ­ing the link to the paper that you can access for free.

The research is part of an ongo­ing pro­ject by a col­lect­ive of sci­ent­ists to see if the Vikings could have nav­ig­ated the Atlantic in cloudy weather using polar­ised light viewed through crys­tals. There is no doubt that the Vikings were mas­ter nav­ig­at­ors, the dif­fi­culty is how did they navigate?

If the sun is vis­ible then they could have used a solar com­pass. This is a bit like a sun­dial. You make a wooden disc with a gnomon stick­ing up out of it. Then you scratch out a line show­ing where the edge of the gnomon shadow reaches dur­ing the day. Where it’s shortest is south and the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion is north. Now, when you go sail­ing the next day, you float it in a small tub of water — to make sure it’s hori­zontal — and then look at the shadow, when you turn the disc so the shadow matches the line you can work out where north is. It does mean know­ing morn­ing from after­noon, so that’s a prob­lem round noon if you’re not care­ful, but there error would not be huge. It wouldn’t work for weeks on end, because the path of the Sun would move in the sky, but it would be good for a month around mid­sum­mer. At least if there’s no cloud. That’s not always the case in the North Atlantic. Storms and fog are com­mon and if there’s neither of those then there’s often cloud.

Horváth et al. have been fol­low­ing the tale of the sun­stone, Continue read­ing

Would Copernicus have been more convincing if he’d been more accurate?


As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I was won­der­ing if Copernicus would have been more con­vin­cing if he’d used ellipses in his model instead of circles. By using circles Copernicus had to use epi­cycles like Ptolemy, though not so many. Still, it gave the impres­sion that epi­cycles were neces­sary. If that’s the case then why not have a sta­tion­ary Earth as well? The dis­cov­ery that plan­et­ary motion would be bet­ter described by ellipses didn’t come about till Kepler’s work almost a cen­tury later. As far as the post title goes, I think Dr* T’s Theory #1 applies here: Any tabloid head­ing that starts ‘Is this.…’, ‘Could this be…’ etc. can be safely answered ‘No’

So my post title is a bit of a cliché, but the reason I’ve used it is that if the answer is no, then some­thing strange is hap­pen­ing. More accur­ate is less convincing?

The reason I think that is that Copernicus’ model wasn’t isol­ated from the rest of thought for that period. It used and built on a num­ber of assump­tions of the time. One of those ideas was the cre­ation of the uni­verse by a per­fect being. Another was the idea that a circle was a per­fect shape, derived from clas­sical geo­metry. By telling people the Sun was at the centre of the uni­verse and not the Earth, Copernicus was ask­ing people to make a big shift in their think­ing. A lot of people thought it non­sense. If he’d made the orbits ellipt­ical as well then many people who would have been will­ing to listen to Copernicus’ ideas would have balked at that, redu­cing his poten­tial audi­ence fur­ther. In terms of num­bers, the pop­u­la­tion of math­em­at­ic­ally minded people who could exam­ine his work was small enough already.

If he’d reduced the num­ber of ini­tial read­ers fur­ther, would his ideas have spread enough for oth­ers to pick them 50 years later? It’s impossible to say, but if Copernicus hadn’t given Kepler the idea of a put­ting the Sun at the centre of uni­verse, could Kepler have dis­covered it inde­pend­ently? It’s hard to say but, given how Kepler struggled with let­ting go of circles and using ellipses, I think it’s unlikely.

This is why I’m wary of his­tor­ies of sci­ence that are purely about who got it right and who got it wrong. Copernicus’ use of circles isn’t ‘right’, but it was neces­sary at the time.

I’ve «cough» bor­rowed the por­trait of Copernicus from Prof Reike’s page on Copernicus. It’s well worth vis­it­ing if you want to find out more about the astronomer.

You can read more about Kepler’s dis­cov­ery of the ellipt­ical path of plan­ets at:
Boccaletti 2001. From the epi­cycles of the Greeks to Keplerʼs ellipse — The break­down of the circle paradigm

Copernicus and the Star that was bigger than the Universe

The constellation Delphinus

I’ve been try­ing to watch Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I’ve never seen it and it’s prov­ing to be a bit of a struggle. He def­in­itely can write. Some of the sequences are fant­astic, but some of it is badly dated. The thing that really grates to me is his dis­missal of Ptolemy and his geo­centric uni­verse. For Sagan at best Ptolemy’s sys­tem held back astro­nomy by 1,500 years. At worst he’s only worth men­tion­ing to say he’s dead wrong, like in the first episode.

It’s not really fair to lay into Sagan for his atti­tude to Ptolemy. His work is a product of its time and it was writ­ten over thirty years ago. But the idea that Ptolemy was clearly wrong seems to the pop­u­lar under­stand­ing of Renaissance astro­nomy. The ques­tion here is Why did some people oppose the helio­centric the­ory of the uni­verse? not Who in their right mind would accept it? It over­looks the power of the Ptolemaic sys­tem. If you fol­lowed Ptolemy’s work you could pre­dict where the plan­ets would be with enough accur­acy for naked-eye astro­nomy. If Copernicus had only used simple circles, then his model might have seemed bet­ter, but he too needed to add epi­cycles and fudges to make his sys­tem match the observ­able sky. It needed fewer epi­cycles, but it was hardly perfect.

Popular belief is that the prob­lem was solved when Galileo picked up his tele­scope and proved the helio­centric the­ory. In fact a recently pub­lished paper by Christopher Graney, The Telescope Against Copernicus: Star Observations by Riccioli Supporting a Geocentric Universe in the Journal for the History of Astronomy shows that the tele­scope could have dealt a ser­i­ous blow to the Copernican model of the uni­verse.
Continue read­ing

Do we need an Industrial Archaeology?

Cromford Canal

Cromford Canal. Click for lar­ger image.

It’s easy to take a World Heritage Site for gran­ted when it’s on your door­step. I had thought of shoot­ing a short port­fo­lio of Cromford for a com­pet­i­tion. They required ten pho­tos. After look­ing into the pro­ject I’ve decided that the com­pet­i­tion isn’t going to hap­pen for me, but a short photo essay on Cromford, or pos­sibly the Derwent Valley Mills, remains an inter­est­ing idea.

Industrial Archaeology can get short shrift from other archae­olo­gists. Often there’s writ­ten records, plans and for some places oral accounts of work at a site. Is Archaeology neces­sary? Mark Henshaw, the Archaeology Dude, makes a good argu­ment that Archaeology can draw mul­tiple lines of evid­ence to inform his­tor­ies of the past. I wouldn’t dis­count that, and I think his point, Archaeology isn’t just about dig­ging, is very import­ant from an American per­spect­ive because there Archaeology is seen as a branch of Anthropology. In the UK you’re more likely to see Archaeology paired with History or Classics. So do we really need Industrial Archaeologists when there so many Early Modern Historians.

I think another factor Archaeology brings is spa­tial think­ing. Looking at the early days of the pro­fes­sion­al­isa­tion of Archaeology in Britain, one of the fea­tures is an attempt to dis­tin­guish Archaeology from History by tak­ing on ideas of Geography. People like OGS Crawford were keen to emphas­ise that Archaeology stud­ied human activ­it­ies in space as well as time. Again, in the UK, when Processualism was tak­ing off in the USA, the British aca­dem­ics took inspir­a­tion from it, but also from the ‘New’ Geography.

The Manager's House, Cromford.

The Manager’s House, Cromford.

Applying this prac­tic­ally, it’s easy to say what the pos­i­tion­ing of the Factory Manager’s house, oppos­ite the main gate of Arkwright’s Mill at Cromford, means by its loc­a­tion. There are other more subtle ques­tions though. What did draw­ing a second water chan­nel through the Derwent Valley mean for land use and access­ib­il­ity? Why was Willersley Castle, a grand house that Arkwright built for him­self, placed where it was? How did it relate to the church he built? If you want to know why a mill owner would want to build a church for his work­ers then, as Mark Henshaw says, you have to look at his­tor­ical records too.

You can write a his­tory purely from his­tor­ical records and archives, but if you want to exam­ine the human exper­i­ence, espe­cially of humans that weren’t writ­ing much, then an Industrial Archaeology can yield a richer, more four-dimensional exper­i­ence, than Anthropology or History alone.

The most important archaeological site in London?


Heritage Key have unleashed their second Bloggers’ Challenge. This time they’d like to know what the most import­ant site in London is. Once again I’m not enter­ing because of Rule 19, but it’s still an inter­est­ing ques­tion. This time around it won’t go live till after the event. I think I’ve gone for an obvi­ous answer and I don’t want ruin it for any­one else who’s come up with the same idea. The only twist is that some of the most import­ant site in London isn’t even on the same con­tin­ent anymore.

London Bridge

London Bridge, Lake Havasu AZ. Photo (cc) Larry Page

It has to be London Bridge. All the other major sites of interest to tour­ists like the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace or the Oxford Circus branch of McDonalds, only exist because of where the bridge was built. Even some­where like Greenwich Observatory, where the world is told what the time is, ulti­mately exists where it does because of the bridge.

Finding the ori­ginal bridge over the Thames sounds quite dif­fi­cult. There’s the usual archae­olo­gical prob­lem that wood leaves little trace in the soil. Added to that are the prob­lems that the soil is under­wa­ter and, in suc­ceed­ing years, people have built massive bridges over the site. That’s an effect­ive way of oblit­er­at­ing any earlier traces. One reason for think­ing that the bridge was built at this site isn’t any remains of the bridge itself. It’s the things that people have thrown off it. Roman coins were found in the gravels under the bridge when later bridges were built. This could be wash of mater­i­als into the river from wherever they were lost, but the con­cen­tra­tion under the bridge marks this out as a spe­cial site. The ori­ginal loc­a­tion was chosen as a con­veni­ent site, but its revival was as a delib­er­ately incon­veni­ent site.

The bridge seems to have gone out of use in the 4th cen­tury AD. After this period cross­ing of the river would have been by ferry. This would not really have been odd. At this time rover trans­port was cheaper than road trans­port and so rivers would have been the high­ways of the ancient and medi­eval world. The river was nav­ig­able to sea-going ves­sels, moved by free wind­power rather than expens­ive grain-fed animal power. That makes build­ing a bridge across the river, block­ing the move­ment of ves­sels, a very con­trolling act and that’s why the bridge was rebuilt in the 990s [PDF]. Building a bridge across the Thames acted as a bar­rier to Viking incur­sions upstream.

Once it was built you not only had a bar­rier to mil­it­ary ves­sels, it also became the end of the river for large mer­chant ships. The docks down­stream of the bridge became the eco­nomic ful­crum of the city and its hin­ter­land. London con­trolled the trader for everything trav­el­ling by river from as far away as Oxford. Wherever the low­est bridge­able point on the river was, that was where the city would be.

Other sites became import­ant partly due to their loc­a­tion in London. The only excep­tion is the bridge, which set the loc­a­tion for London. When McCulloch bought London bridge for his new city at Lake Havasu, and not Tower Bridge, he was buy­ing the bridge that mattered.

Impactful Invaders


Which invader could steal past the Tower of London?

Heritage Key are hold­ing a com­pet­i­tion, ask­ing for blog posts about “Which invaders have had the biggest impact on London?” I can’t enter for vari­ous reas­ons, but it’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. In the spirit of cre­at­ively com­ing up with the wrong answer, I’m going to go for:

Yersinia pestis

Y. pestis is without doubt the invader who has had the biggest impact, for cer­tain defin­i­tions of invader and impact. I think it’s an invader, because it’s thought to have come from the Gobi desert ori­gin­ally. It’s cer­tainly had impact, because no other invader has come close to killing half of London’s pop­u­la­tion. If you’re won­der­ing which invader killed so many people, it’s thought that Y. pestis in one form or another was the bac­terium that caused the Black Death.

It arrived in the UK in 1348. One record is the Grey Friars Chronicle, which has the best description:

In this year 1348 in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol came along­side. One of the sail­ors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the ter­rible pes­ti­lence and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.

In real­ity it prob­ably came in on sev­eral ships from across the chan­nel. News of the plague spread much faster than the plague itself, so Gloucester was able to pre­pare by shut­ting the gates of the city. As a plan this would have worked if the rats had been trained to enter the city by the com­mer­cial routes. For some­where like London this was not a remotely plaus­ible strategy, and so the pop­u­la­tion would have been await­ing what seemed like the judge­ment of a wrath­ful god. It arrived in London by autumn of the same year, almost cer­tainly aboard a ship rather than from an over­land route.

If you were a killer bug with a pen­chant for pes­ti­lence then 1300s London would have been para­dise. Hitching a ride in the gut of a flea, you could have trans­ferred to a human or one of the many mil­lions of rats which thrived in the squalor of the city. The hygiene prac­tices of the time, and I use the word hygiene wholly incor­rectly, meant that there was a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of fresh rats to incub­ate a trav­el­ling plague. It gave the dis­ease a tre­mend­ous longev­ity, in sad con­trast to its many vic­tims. If you meas­ure impact purely in terms of people dead, then it’s hard to find any­thing with greater impact than Y. pestis, which hung around till 1665. Yet it’s not just death that made Y. pestis London’s greatest invader.

Across Britain a third of the pop­u­la­tion died. The land­scape is littered with what archae­olo­gists call DMVs, Deserted Medieval Villages. You can still see them around today with the occa­sional church in the middle of nowhere, with no obvi­ous con­greg­a­tion. You can’t remove that many people without some­thing break­ing, and in the Middle Ages, this was Feudalism. Before the plague serfs had been tied to their master’s estates. The massive cull­ing of the pop­u­la­tion by the Black Death increased the value of labour­ers, and set in motion a series of revolts and upris­ings which would even­tu­ally end Feudalism.

Another effect was the aban­don­ment of land. This helped place more wealth in hands of the church. This wealth helped fuel the con­flicts between church and state in later times. More con­tro­ver­sially, it’s also been pro­posed that agri­cul­tural use of land could have affected the cli­mate. Bill Ruddiman has argued that the plague led to refor­est­a­tion of the land, redu­cing the car­bon con­cen­tra­tion of the atmo­sphere, ulti­mately lead­ing to cool­ing in the Little Ice Age. This is not a main­stream idea, but it is taken ser­i­ously by many cli­mate research­ers and does appear in cli­mate change journ­als, rather than social sci­ences journals.

Regardless of the cli­mactic con­sequences, it’s inter­est­ing to ask if the Renaissance would have happened without the Black Death. Some of the social changes were hap­pen­ing before the arrival of the plague, but at the very least Y. pestis amp­li­fied them. The removal of so many people from the pop­u­la­tion wasn’t just a quant­at­ive change, it was a qual­it­at­ive change, because it meant rethink­ing how people were val­ued in an eco­nomy. The Black Death fuelled social changes in the Late Middle Ages which would even­tu­ally blos­som as the Renaissance. Still, this is one his­tor­ical char­ac­ter who might not stay in the past. Y. pestis may yet have a role to play in the future.

If you’re inter­ested in read­ing more about the arrival of the Black Death as an inva­sion, there’s a very read­able chapter in Benedictow’s book The Black Death, 1346–1353: the com­plete his­tory avail­able in Google Books.